Polymers used in implantable devices, although relatively unreactive, may degrade in vivo through unknown mechanisms. For example, polyetherurethane elastomers used as cardiac pacemaker lead insulation have developed surface defects after implantation. This phenomenon, termed "environmental stress cracking," requires intimate contact between polymer and host phagocytic cells, suggesting that phagocyte-generated oxidants might be involved. Indeed, brief exposure of polyetherurethane to activated human neutrophils, hypochlorous acid, or peroxynitrite produces modifications of the polymer similar to those found in vivo. Damage to the polymer appears to arise predominantly from oxidation of the urethane-aliphatic ester and aliphatic ether groups. There are substantial increases in the solid phase surface oxygen content of samples treated with hypochlorous acid, peroxynitrite or activated human neutrophils, resembling those observed in explanted polyetherurethane. Furthermore, both explanted and hypochlorous acid-treated polyetherurethane show marked reductions in polymer molecular weight. Interestingly, hypochlorous acid and peroxynitrite appear to attack polyetherurethane at different sites. Hypochlorous acid or activated neutrophils cause decreases in the urethane-aliphatic ester stretch peak relative to the aliphatic ether stretch peak (as determined by infrared spectroscopy) whereas peroxynitrite causes selective loss of the aliphatic ether. In vivo degradation may involve both hypohalous and nitric oxide-based oxidants because, after long-term implantation, both stretch peaks are diminished. These results suggest that in vivo destruction of implanted polyetherurethane involves attack by phagocyte-derived oxidants.
K Sutherland, J R Mahoney 2nd, A J Coury, J W Eaton